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Mapping areas of groundwater susceptible to transient contamination events from rapid infiltration into shallow fractured-rock aquifers in agricultural regions of the conterminous United States

November 18, 2022

Current time-invariant groundwater vulnerability assessments may not capture intermittent contamination events in landscape areas that experience rapid infiltration following precipitation or snowmelt. Occurrences of rapid infiltration and intermittent degradation of groundwater quality are frequently reported in fractured-rock aquifers. This investigation identifies landscape areas underlain by fractured rock within the conterminous United States (CONUS) that may be susceptible to rapid infiltration and where groundwater is a principal source of water supply to the population. Our analysis shows that approximately 27 percent of the CONUS, corresponding to a population of approximately 150 million people, is both underlain by fractured rock and denoted as an area of significant groundwater use.

The results of this survey identified shallow fractured-rock aquifers underlying glacial sediments in the upper Midwest and northeastern United States as areas that may be subject to rapid infiltration events. Additionally, aquifers associated with the early Mesozoic basins located in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic United States and bands of carbonate aquifers in the southeastern United States show high susceptibility to rapid infiltration. Index values used in this investigation indicate isolated areas in the western half of the United States also show high susceptibility to rapid infiltration. The isolated areas in Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and southwestern Missouri correspond to karst regions of carbonate aquifers. The isolated areas showing high susceptibility to rapid infiltration and contamination from agricultural sources are locations where more detailed investigations of transient contamination events are warranted.

This survey also addresses the potential for contaminant longevity in fractured-rock aquifers stemming from intermittent contamination events. Contaminants that can dissolve into the groundwater following infiltration may be introduced into fractures, and the dissolved constituents can diffuse from fractures into the porosity of the adjacent rock matrix. These constituents can then diffuse back into permeable fractures and adversely affect groundwater quality at downgradient locations over an extended time frame. Rock types with larger matrix porosities have the capacity to retain and then release larger quantities of dissolved constituents, resulting in longer residence times for dissolved groundwater contaminants. The magnitude of the dissolved contaminant concentration infiltrating to the water table will also dictate whether the contaminant concentration in the groundwater exceeds limits for human consumption over the duration of a contamination event.

In general, sedimentary- and carbonate-rock aquifers have larger matrix porosities in comparison to igneous- and metamorphic-rock aquifers, and thus, they are more susceptible to longer contaminant residence times. Aquifers composed of sedimentary or carbonate rock constitute approximately 51 percent of the CONUS, and 19 percent of the CONUS is associated with sedimentary- or carbonate-rock aquifers that are of significance for groundwater use. Depending on the contaminants of concern and the concentration of the contaminants introduced into the groundwater from infiltrating water, it would be beneficial for investigations of susceptibility to rapid infiltration to also consider the potential for contaminant longevity.

This investigation identifies areas of rapid infiltration into fractured rock using index values applied to the attributes (1) depth to the water table, (2) depth to bedrock, and (3) percentage of sand in soil, where larger index values indicate a greater susceptibility to rapid infiltration. These attributes are selected as the most likely factors that affect rapid infiltration to the water table. The combination of depth to water table and depth to bedrock highlight those aquifer settings that are characterized as shallow fractured-rock aquifers, where the water table may reside either in the bedrock or in overlying unconsolidated geologic materials. In addition, we consider the percentage of agricultural use as a land-use attribute when formulating an index of susceptibility to rapid infiltration and contamination. Agricultural areas are well recognized as nonpoint sources of contaminants that can affect groundwater quality because of seasonal amendments applied to the land surface. Rural agricultural areas are also characterized by septic tanks and leach fields for onsite treatment of wastewater, which may also be a source of contamination that may be introduced into the groundwater following precipitation or snowmelt events.

Publication Year 2022
Title Mapping areas of groundwater susceptible to transient contamination events from rapid infiltration into shallow fractured-rock aquifers in agricultural regions of the conterminous United States
DOI 10.3133/ofr20221093
Authors Allen M. Shapiro, James A. Falcone
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2022-1093
Index ID ofr20221093
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization WMA - Earth System Processes Division